I am sure most people have seen the articles about some significant legislative changes in the UAE with changes to the penal code and personal status laws and these are very positive in all respects. In this article, I want to explain what this actually means in relation to the financial issues, as headlines are not always quite what they seem and there are subjects that still need to be considered and addressed by expats, especially in terms of the distribution of assets in death.
Let’s address the various points in turn.
What are the changes to inheritance in the UAE?
Previously, all assets in the UAE, for expats and citizens alike, have been governed by Sharia Law, the law of the UAE but this is set to change. Going forward, expats will be able to have the inheritance rules of their home country applied instead and interestingly, this applies to non-Muslims and Muslims alike. This is a significant change.
Are there any exclusions?
One major exception, not covered by the new legislation, is the ownership of property. All property in the UAE will still be subject to distribution under Sharia law unless an appropriate will is in place. Only non-Muslims can write full wills for the UAE.
What is meant by home country inheritance rules?
The information we have seen so far refers to the country of citizenship, so the passport an expat has. There are cases where people have more than one passport and while there has been no confirmation on this point, I expect that the passport used for the UAE residency visa is the one that would be considered, in line with other issues.
Do we still need wills after these changes?
In most cases, yes you do and for several reasons.
Guardianship. One of the main reasons people require wills is to specify permanent guardians for their children should both parents die. Without a valid will in place, a decision will be made by a court that may not be in line with your wishes. You also require a home country will in order to arrange temporary guardianship for minors in the UAE.
Home country wills. These changes are only relevant to assets that you hold in the UAE and if you have assets elsewhere, chances are you will need a will to ensure that these are distributed as you wish, and without delays. These will include guardians and financial trustees for minors and more.
Is your home country law what you want? While in many cases, the application of home country inheritance law is preferred, this may not always be the case. You may not want the standard distribution of all assets to a spouse and there are myriad other issues to take into consideration. How do you provide for step-children, for siblings, godchildren, general bequests, charitable donations etc? Maybe you want an uneven distribution of assets due to personal circumstances? Many countries have a system of what is referred to as ‘forced heirship’ where the distribution of assets in death is laid out in law and assets pass to ‘protected heirs’, generally a spouse and children, and cannot be changed no matter what the individual requires.
Quicker distribution of assets We understand that UAE bank accounts will still be frozen in the event of death and that there will not be access until the estate is settled. Having a will in place should speed up this process.
In all cases it is wise to have a chat to see what is best for you, if you require a home country and/or local will and the issues to consider in each case. It is also important to remember that a will allows for faster distribution of assets making a difficult time easier for those left behind.
I have updated my article on wills in light of the changes, See here: Where there’s a will, there’s a way to protect your family
One of the other topics addressed in the announcement is that of divorce, and how this will be dealt with. A couple that chooses to divorce in the UAE will now have proceedings dictated by the laws of the country in which they were married, no matter their religion. Prior to this Muslim couples had Sharia applied to the division of assets, any maintenance payments and also child custody arrangements.
Until now, non-Muslim expats who divorced in the UAE could choose either to have Sharia applied or request to have the laws of their home country applied instead but if they had different nationalities, which is often the case here, the citizenship of the husband would apply. In addition, if the law of the individual’s home country did not cover one aspect, the courts could apply UAE law instead.
What this means is that there could be significantly different outcomes for each party and less conflict over whose laws should apply.
Think ahead if planning a wedding
A consideration for anyone planning to get married, is the location of the legal wedding. It is quite popular for UAE-based expats to fly to places like The Seychelles, Mauritius or Cyprus but with these changes the laws of these countries could apply should the marriage end in divorce.
Not a cheerful topic if planning a wedding but I’d suggest that few expats are aware of the divorce laws in these countries or if these would have an adverse effect.
A round up of the other changes
Be aware that certain issues are being decriminalised but this not necessarily mean that they are legal. Certain offences are being effectively downgraded from criminal offences to civil offences that will have lighter penalties and fewer consequences.
- Decriminalisation of suicide and attempted suicide.
- The introduction of ‘Good Samaritan’ legislation so anyone who attempts to help others, such as in the event of a traffic accident, will not be liable for the outcome.
- Cohabitation is no longer illegal. I would also like to make it clear that the law does not explicitly permit sexual relations outside of marriage, but restricts ‘punishment to sexual offences under duress’ and says ‘consensual sex will not be punished’. No mention of pregnancy out of wedlock but this is likely to remain an offence so take care.
- There are a few amendments to support the rights of women including the removal of the crime of ‘honour killings’. Such cases will be deemed assault. Also tougher punishments for all kinds of harassment.
- The consumption of alcohol is no longer a criminal offence and this grey area in law is being removed. The minimum legal age for alcohol consumption remains 21 years and alcohol can only be consumed in private places, such as homes, or licensed premises. The rules related to alcohol consumption are federal and Dubai has not announced that licences are to be scrapped, as some have claimed.
- Bank accounts will still be frozen on death and it can still take a long time for them to be unfrozen. If you have a joint account, it will be frozen too but you may be able to access 50% of money if you make an application within 10 days of your spouse’s death – if you are in a position to do so. Separate bank accounts are still recommended, as if keeping money offshore.
This announcement is a good move that not only makes life easier for many expats living in the UAE, and clears up some areas of contention, but should have far-reaching and positive consequences in terms of attracting investment and business to the UAE.
The economies of most countries in the world have taken a hit due to COVID-19, and the UAE has also been affected although perhaps to a lesser extent than many, but the changes that have been announced will give individuals, companies, corporations and foreign governments more confidence in doing business in what is the most-progressive country in the Gulf.
To arrange a discussion on any aspect of your personal financial planning, or to arrange a will, please email me at email@example.com
I write articles such as this one as part of the holistic personal financial planning service and that I provide to expats, and the general consumer, financial and legal information that I provide in The National newspaper, on radio, and on the Facebook group British Expats Dubai.
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